Exploring space, form, function, home, and The Outer Harbour
The Outer Harbour is the first collection of short stories from Vancouver author Wayde Compton, and it reads like a first collection — rough around the edges, yes, but also gutsy, loud, subversive, insistent. This collection is a like a puppy: it’s got a good heart, a lot of energy, and a million limbs going in about 12 directions at once.
The most intriguing and striking thing about these stories is how well they hang and fit together. Thematically, Compton is concerned with space: how it breeds familiarity, and how that familiarity can be explored, undermined, or transformed into something else. He borrows an epigraph from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space — the same text that examines how a house or building is the perfect metaphor for the mind — and this absolutely sets the stage for the collection. He wants to abandon clear-cut or familiar space, or at least clear-cut and familiar use of space. These stories flirt with the uncanny or the creepy or the straight up weird; they defamiliarize things that ought to be comfortable, and sit back to watch you scratch your head.
A good example of this is the first and strongest recurring plot arc, which pops up periodically in several stories: Pauline Johnson Island, a brand new island formed by volcanic activity off the coast of Vancouver out of the blue. What is the government supposed to do with this new piece of land? What do they have a right to do?
This new island gives Compton a good excuse to talk about land rights, not to mention the way the government treats land and the people on it. We witness this island at its smoky, alarming birth; we follow it as half a dozen protesters land on it and attempt to decolonize a space the government has already declared off-limits; we see those protesters dragged off, and the land then developed into condos, of course; finally, the island’s luxury apartment buildings become some kind of holding facility for people — migrants from some place, some unknown where — who, for some reason no one can quite understand, are blinking in and out of existence and from one place to another.
And this progression is cool, wickedly cool, a history fed to the reader so gradually as to be almost unnoticeable. One of the “stories” is just a series of images, of posters advertising a variety of events to do with this new island: protests, informational meetings, sales nights for the condos, and so on, and this pulls us back to the epigraph: Compton is messing around with the idea of “space,” again, and how space can be used in a narrative or a book to subvert expectations or frameworks. It’s delicious, delightful, artful — like a magic trick. One thing changes into another right before your eyes and you can’t quite figure out how it happened and you love it. You love the transformation and you love that someone did it right in front of you.